Do you remember The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier’s 2007 book which became a classic? If you do, you will certainly like his latest work, The Plundered Planet. He came to launch his new book to the Bank this week, and I found it both fascinating and provocative. Let me give some examples of why.
Professor Collier, now the Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, declares a two-front war on economists and environmentalists at the same time. He is against what he calls “utilitarian economists,” because if left on their own, they would end up plundering the planet. But Collier also takes on “romantic environmentalists,” who would be unable to eradicate hunger in case they’re given the chance to rule the world. So as you can see, the book’s premises don’t really fit into the script of the blockbuster, Oscar-winning movie Avatar.
For Collier, who also worked as the Bank’s Research Director some years ago, Nature is the lifeline for the countries of the bottom billion – and thus cannot remain untouched. With a strong faith in the power of well-informed ordinary citizens, Collier proposes a series of international standards that would help poor countries rich in natural assets better manage those resources. Technology, which enlarges the capacity of ordinary citizens, is also necessary to turn Nature into assets. But of course, in order to be effective and benefit the bottom billion instead of just the few at the top, regulation, which requires governance, is another seminal element of the equation to create prosperity. If you leave regulation out of the equation, as some Libertarians do, the result is nature plundered. But if you end up with too much regulation – curbing the use of Nature – and thus preventing technology, then the result is hunger. And I’m certainly not one of those radical, romantic environmentalists who can imagine a bottom billion who is hungry but happy.